Thousands of buildings to be destroyed in potential 7.5-magnitude quake in Istanbul

A study by the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality and Kandilli Observatory and Earthquake Research Institute estimates that over 250,000 buildings would be completely destroyed, severely damaged or experience medium-severity damage in the case of a seismic event with a magnitude above 7.5 on the Richter scale.

Istanbul remains at risk of a significant earthquake as Turkey sits on two major fault lines and has a history of powerful tremors, including a 7.4 magnitude earthquake in 1999 centred in the western city of İzmit. More than 17,000 people lost their lives in the province and its neighbours, including Istanbul.

“On average, there is a 7 to 7.9 scale earthquake every six and a half years in this region,” Kandilli Director Haluk Özener said on Nov. 28, referring to the Anatolian peninsula as a whole.

The report assessed damages for every district in Istanbul, and saw that the level of destruction would be higher and more probable in poorer districts of Turkey's megacity. Many of these districts saw a construction boom under the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Moderate and higher damage is expected to occur in some 10,000 buildings in Bağcılar, 9,000 in Büyükçekmece, 5,000 in Esenler, 15,000 in Kâğıthane, 13,000 in Küçükçekmece and 45,000 in Sultanbeyli. 

These districts are made up of working class neighbourhoods with a high concentration of refugees, and are densely packed with housing.

Thousands of households would need temporary shelter after the earthquake, the report said.

The need for temporary housing would arise for 67,000 households in Esenyurt, 35,000 in Avcılar, 28,000 in Pendik, 27,000 in Beylikdüzü and 31,000 in Zeytinburnu, according to the report.

Istanbul's opposition mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu has repeatedly said the city lacks emergency assembly points in the event of a natural disaster. The AKP has faced serious criticism for building on parks and other open areas that could be used as gathering spots in emergencies, but Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan contradicted the criticisms, saying that there were “tens of thousands” spots to gather in the city.

Decades of unbridled development and poorly enforced zoning laws have raised serious concerns about Istanbul’s ability to cope with earthquakes. Critics also accuse Erdoğan’s AKP of fuelling a construction boom after coming to power in 2002, using state coffers to fund or underwrite big building projects and awarding contracts to construction firms, which then back the ruling party.

“All actions must be reviewable. Unchecked power is not power,” Gürbüz Çapan, the former mayor of Istanbul’s Esenyurt district, told Ahval. 

He said professional organisations must review all projects and they must be at the centre of decision-making authority.

The AKP has stepped up efforts to restrict the authority of professional organisations, seeking to introduce restrictions on areas of activity, revenue sources and election criteria. 

The Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects (TMMOB) has traditionally been politically active, leading campaigns for peace and democracy. Among its goals are furthering democratisation in the country, and advocating the public interest.

Feti Yıldız, deputy chairman of the AKP’s far-right partner in parliament Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), accused professional organisations under the TMMOB of “acting as headquarters for enemies of democracy and the state.”

“So what will be the end of this? The solution is to strengthen professional organisations. Their duties and assignments need to be defined. For example, they should have the authority to ban a bad architect from the profession. Otherwise, defective work and counterfeiting will dominate," Çapan said.

The 6.9 magnitude earthquake that shook the western Izmir province on Oct. 30 resulted in 115 fatalities, higher than similar events elsewhere in the world, raising concerns over Turkey’s preparedness to face similar events in the future.

Turkey was home to 85 percent of the world’s earthquake deaths in 2020, according to data published by the United States Geological Survey (USGS).

On Nov. 5, the AKP and the MHP voted against legislation proposed by the opposition to better prepare the country for earthquakes after the Izmir earthquake. The rejection of the measure underscores Turkey’s widening political divide. The legislation is the latest in a long line of opposition proposals to be thrown out by the AKP without the government proposing anything in its place.

Erdoğan hit back at criticism that his government had not done enough to mitigate the risk of earthquakes, telling the opposition to keep quiet about issues they do not understand.